I’ve still only seen a small percentage of Jean-Luc Godard‘s total number of films, which I regard as a good thing, because it means I will have many future wonderful Godard film experiences. If you’d asked me two months ago whether François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard were the better filmmaker (or at least my favorite filmmaker), I would have said Truffaut without batting an eye. But the decision would have been hasty, and after Breathless, Band of Outsiders, A Woman is a Woman and My Life to Life (and Contempt, but I need a rewatch on that one) I’m pretty much a Godard fangirl. In addition to his films being enjoyable on their own terms, they’re also like mini-courses in cinema technique and history. Which I suppose is unsurprising for a filmmaker who started as a cinephile at the Cinématheque Française and critic for the Cahiers du cinéma.
Video clips and discussion of Band of Outsiders, A Woman is a Woman and My Life to Live after the cut. Yes, I should’ve included something from Breathless as well, but it’s been a while since I saw it, so I would be less competent at choosing and discussing clips. Incidentally, July 11 has apparently been declared Fair Use Day, and the use of film clips for purposes of criticism and education falls under fair use, so even though I’ve been planning this post for a few days, it’s appropriate that it worked out for me to post it today.
Bande à part / Band of Outsiders (1964)
Dancing in the Cafe
In this clip, Odile and Arthur decide to dance, first trying out different dance style with their fingers on the table in a scene vaguely reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin‘s potatoes-on-forks table-top dancing in The Gold Rush (the ending of Bande à part will even more closely homage Chaplin’s The Immigrant). Then Franz joins them to dance the Madison. It’s incredible to me that three people dancing side by side for a number of minutes isn’t totally boring. (You may think it’s totally boring…and in isolation, I understand. But it works within the pacing of the film excellently.) The narrator (Godard himself) takes a moment to give a bit of insight into the characters–the relationships between the three are never totally clear, as both Arthur and Franz seem to be after Odile, and she doesn’t seem to care very much either way, and yet none of them are very forceful at going after anything they want. So they’re dancing together, but not really; they’re relating to each other, but not really; as the narrator’s insights indicate, they are each concerned with the way the other two see them, making the trio a complicated mess of solidarity and isolation–even further emphasized by the way each randomly breaks off from the dance.
A Minute of Silence
Godard in all his films (that I’ve seen) constantly plays with both sound and visuals, drawing the audience’s attention to the way a film is constructed. In this clip (which comes either just before or just after the dance scene, I forget which), the bored trio kills time first with a hand boiler toy (I used to have one of these…the heat from your hand makes the liquid move across; Odile suggests that the one who loves her can make the liquid move, a motif which returns at the end of the film) and then a minute of silence. But it’s not only Odile, Franz, and Arthur who go silent; Godard silences the entire soundtrack. The first time I saw the scene, my jaw dropped open in shock when the background noises all stopped, too. Godard is highlighting the constructedness of cinema, and destroying our expectations of what realistic cinema is or should be. The silence is maddening, and the characters can only make it for about 35 seconds before they move on. He does a similar thing in the clip above, where the dance music is completely cut off for the narrator to speak, yet the trio dances on; also in Une femme est une femme, the soundtrack often drops randomly out, but it’s especially noticeable when the main character is singing a song and the accompanying music fades almost completely when she sings and comes back full force in between her lines.
The Louvre in Less Than Ten Minutes
And this clip just because it’s fun and because it’s been imitated a gazillion times (notably in Bernardo Bertolucci‘s The Dreamers, which is a homage to the New Wave and the late 1960s Cinématheque era in general, but especially Bande à part). This version doesn’t have the subtitles, but basically the narration says that the trio has about ten minutes to kill before they can embark on their planned robbery, so they decide to see the Louvre. The record for going through the Louvre is about 9 minutes 45 seconds, set by an American; they break the record. There’s also a great scene in which Franz and Arthur reenact the death of Billy the Kid, complete with B-movie theatrics, but I couldn’t show the whole movie, now could I?
Une femme est une femme / A Woman is a Woman (1961)
This film is just so much fun; you should see the whole thing, because it honestly doesn’t clip that well. Angela really wants to have a baby with her boyfriend Emile, but he’s not terribly excited about the idea. Meanwhile, their mutual friend Alfred tries to convince Angela to love him instead. It’s playful from start to finish, not least of all because of the intentionally intrusive soundtrack (by Michel Legrand, who also did the lovely music for Jacques Demy‘s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort), which complements, comments on, and counterpoints the action of the film.
I just found this scene delightful. Emile and Angela are not speaking, because they’ve been fighting over the baby issue. But they’re not done communicating, so they run around the room using book titles to continue their fight. I’ve never thought of using books in quite this way before, but I may have to keep it in mind! The conceit is repeated at the end of the film.
The Soundtrack of Their Lives
And this is, I think, the emotional centerpiece of the film. Angela and Alfred are together in a cafe; Angela in a huff over her fight with Emile, and Alfred because he loves Angela and hopes to win her. Alfred shows Angela a picture of Emile with another woman (he is not really cheating on her, though), and then plays Angela’s favorite song on the jukebox. And for the entire length of the song, Godard does nothing more than show us the play of emotions and conflicts on the two characters’ faces. The singer of the song, by the way, is Charles Aznavour, who played the piano player in François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. Watching Une femme est une femme sometimes feels a little like being let into the New Wave’s inner circle. Like the dancing scene in Bande à part, it seems as though there’s not much going on for several minutes. But there is. And Godard doesn’t gloss over it or pass through it quickly as a lot of films might. He makes Angela and Alfred (and us) squirm with irresolution. (I apologize for the jumpy audio in this clip–I apparently need to tweak the settings on my encoding program.)
Vivre sa vie / My Life to Live (1962)
I think this is better translated To Live Her Life, but I’m probably not going to be able to buck thirty-five years of translating it My Life to Live. Oh well. This one depressed me a little bit when I finished watching it, especially having come off Une femme est une femme fairly recently. Whereas Une femme has hardly a serious moment in it (the clip above is perhaps the only one), Vivre sa vie is very serious. The main character Nana, unable to keep up with her bills on her meagre income as a record store clerk, turns to prostitution. The film is made up of a series of twelve tableaux, each one a vignette of Nana’s life which are more or less sequential, but highlight different facets of her character and identity. Though it depressed me at the time and I didn’t enjoy watching it as much as Bande à part or Une femme est une femme, I can’t get it out of my head, and Godard is doing some amazing things in it.
Nana wants to leave Paul
This is the entire first tableau, in which Nana (pre-prostitution) wants to leave her boyfriend Paul, according to the title card. The title cards are important, because Godard is playing with a lot of silent cinema conventions in Vivre sa vie, which will be more apparent in the two clips below. In this one already you can hear the musical theme identified with Nana which recurs over and over, like a motif in a silent film score (or really, any film score, but the way it’s used is more overt than in most sound film scores). This is a long clip, I know, but notice how throughout this whole scene, we always see Nana and Paul a) from the back and b) in isolation from each other. Most films would have at least a few shots that show them both, or that show their faces (often from the other’s point of view). You get the sense that they aren’t talking TO each other. Certainly they aren’t “together”–in fact, I’m pretty sure Paul never shows up again in the film. Seeing them only from behind essentially creates negative space. In a way, the film is about negative space–what is left when you take away everything that makes a person a person? When a woman has to sell her body in order to feed it, what happens to her identity?
Also, look at how Godard is using the mirrors. We see Nana in the mirror more and more as the clip progresses; Godard encourages us through purely visual techniques to see her as a split person, which is, in fact, what she becomes when she becomes a prostitute. The film’s epigraph is a quote from Montaigne: “Lend yourself to others and give yourself to yourself.” Nana has two selves, the one she lends and the one she keeps. The doubling effect of the mirrors emphasizes and foreshadows her future need to create a body/self dichotomy (this idea is made even more clear in the dialogue about the inside and outside of a bird at the end of the clip). We don’t really see Paul in the mirror at all (a few shots from behind her show him briefly, but she usually pulls her head in front immediately, or his face is cut off by the mirror divider); I don’t know why that is, unless it either indicates that he doesn’t have much of a soul/self (he does seem kind of shallow and doesn’t help Nana when she needs it), or merely keeps the focus on Nana rather than developing Paul any further.
Channelling Dreyer’s Joan of Arc
Here the silent cinema influence is explicit. Nana goes to the movies and sees Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc. I’m sorry, the only clip I could find of this scene is subtitled in Italian rather than English, but generally, the priest comes to tell Joan she will be burned at the stake and mentions that she can surely no longer believe she has been sent by God, but Joan reaffirms her belief in her divine call. But the main thing of importance to Nana is Joan’s quiet suffering; notice the way Godard connects Joan’s on-screen tears with those of Nana in the audience. Also, notice how about three-quarters through the Joan of Arc scene, the priest’s words and Joan’s are no longer given in title cards (as they would have been in the original silent film), but are treated as subtitles. Godard blurs the line between silent and sound cinema–true cinema transcends the distinction. By the way, this clip is not supposed to have sound–the sequence is completely silent in Vivre sa vie.
And here Godard brings the silent cinema into his current-day story. Nana has met a young man and decided to leave her life as a prostitute and be with him. It’s a lovely scene within the context of the film, but honestly, if you didn’t know it was a 1962 film, you could easily guess it was silent. The musical motif is dominant, the dialogue is given in captions (as in the end of the Joan of Arc scene), and the camera is strangely still, as it was in the very, very early days of cinema (that’s not a comment on silent film in general, which is NOT always characterized by a still camera, but more on primitive film, when the camera was likely to stay still and capture whatever happened in its path). More negative space, too, as the shot opens with a huge space on the top right with nothing in it, the boy’s head barely in the bottom left corner, and Nana moving on from the left. As the clip progresses, though, and it becomes clear that she intends to leave her current life, she reclaims the negative space, at least partially reasserts her identity over it and the camera follows her when she sits. I won’t tell you the very end of the film, because I’m mean like that. ;)
You may have noticed that Odile, Angela, and Nana are all the same actress–Anna Karina was the leading lady in most of Godard’s 1960s films, and was married to him from 1961-1968. She’s one of those actresses who absolutely captures your heart the moment she’s on screen, and as amazing as Godard is, I think I can safely say that none of these films would have been the same with any other leading lady. She is perfection at every second. Jean-Paul Belmondo, who is Alfred in Une femme est une femme and also the lead in Breathless, is always worth watching as well.